There are many odd practices associated with the traditional sport of horse racing, but surely the wearing of huge, elaborate hats is among the strangest. A common custom, especially at the most important races such as the Kentucky Derby, many of the people sporting this somewhat absurd headwear at the track do not even know where the whole concept started in the first place. So, why do people wear big hats at horse races?
A Quick History of Horse Racing
Horse racing itself goes back thousands of years and was popular among such widespread civilizations as ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome. It likely got its start among the nomadic herdsmen of Central Asia. Largely due to the ongoing value of horses, racing them has usually been considered a pastime of the elite.
In the 12th century AD, Arab horses returned to the UK with soldiers during the Crusades. When bred with British horses they produced the thoroughbreds that are the staple of horse racing today. But it wasn’t until the 17th century under King Charles II that horse racing became an organized competitive event in the UK.
Half a century later, the races were expanded to involve many horses at once and allowing spectators to bet on the winners. From there the sport took off, eventually becoming known as “the sport of kings” and bastion of the elite.
Horse Racing and Class Status
Organized horse racing has always been expensive and, therefore, considered the realm of the upper class. The cost of purchasing horses, maintaining stables, paying jockeys and carefully controlled breeding all made the sport prohibitive for all but the most wealthy. As a result, involvement in racing imbued a certain image of wealth, status and importance that has never completely faded.
It naturally followed that those who attended races were the most influential and fashionable. Throughout this time, women’s hats were generally considered fashionable, although not everyone could afford to wear them, at least not the most desirable ones. Because of this, wearing their most extravagant hats to exclusive events such as weddings, balls and horse races became a way for wealthy women to set themselves apart from the common folk. As the tradition became more ensconced over time the hats became an iconic symbol of affluence and high society.
Of course, being a slave to status and vanity was not limited to women. In these slightly more chauvinistic times, rich men were constantly alert to the manner in which their women reflected on them. Which is why they often led the charge, encouraging women to spend exorbitantly on their appearance at these events, not only on hats but also gloves, makeup and jewelry.
Do you think you can name these horse racing terms?
Crossing the Atlantic
While horse racing itself took place in America from essentially the day Europeans set foot on North American soil, it was only much later that formal events resembling those back in the UK began to take place.
The Kentucky Derby is the most famous race in America and dates all the way back to 1875. From the beginning, they attempted to recreate the grand customs of British races, advocating fancy dress and a formal atmosphere. The Derby’s long-standing tradition of wearing beautiful hats, enjoying mint julep and joining a group rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” still continue today. These all fit together perfectly with some of the funniest horse names in the long history of the Kentucky Derby.
Of course, the Kentucky Derby is hardly the only American race where dressy hats are commonplace. Overall, the custom has developed into standard practice among certain sections of horse racing enthusiasts. Near San Diego, the Del Mar race track holds a wildly popular contest for best hat each year and many other races also feature hat-related activities.
Despite the relative absurdity and vaguely misogynistic origins of big hats at horse races, for the most part it is now seen mainly as a fun, harmless pastime. These days it is not as common for women to wear hats, so the races represent one of the rare opportunities an American woman has to express herself by wearing a ridiculously gigantic peacock feather hat. And who are we to begrudge anyone that?